Lonny Davis, founder of Hope Haven West got hooked providing dignity through mobility to the disabled poor in the developing world. Though his ‘day job' is owner and operator of Davis Guest Homes, providing residential care for the chronically mentally ill, mobility for the poor grabbed his heart many years ago when a friend invited him to go on a wheelchair distribution in Central America.
"There was this 13 year old girl that came in," said Davis, fighting back tears. "She was strapped to her mother's back. She had been carried that way since birth, and she was almost as big as her mother. Though her body was disabled, her mental functioning was intact. I couldn't help but think about the issues that a non-disabled 13 year old girl faces; in becoming independent from her parents, discovering her body image, learning to be an adult - and here was this girl who was facing those same issues while dependent on her mother to haul her around. She probably got out of the house less and less each year as she grew larger and her mother's ability to carry her diminished.
"When we fitted that girl for a wheelchair and showed her how to use it, she just lit up. Her mother was in tears. I sat there and watched the dignity just flow into that young lady. I'll never forget her, and I'll never stop doing what we're doing because of her."
What started with locally one wheelchair distribution and seating clinic sponsored by Ceres Rotary Club with partner agency Hope Haven International in Guatemala eleven years ago has developed into a truly incredible organization known as Hope Haven West, located in Modesto. Over 25 seating clinics in dozens of developing countries have occurred, with over 5,000 of the disabled poor receiving specially fitted wheelchairs. A large cadre of volunteers, a new 18000 square foot warehouse on Coldwell Avenue in Modesto (now home to 1500 wheelchairs in various stages of sorting, assembling and shipping) and most importantly, the fact that Hope Haven West is a 100 percent model-every penny of every donation goes toward providing mobility to the disabled poor-(all administrative and fund raising expenses are paid by private benefactors) are the components that have allowed the incredible growth of this organization.
The World Health Organization estimates that one percent of the world's population, or just under 65 million people are in need of a wheelchair. WHO further states that a wheelchair must be appropriate, fitted and well-designed.
In the United States and Canada it is estimated that as many as 100,000 wheelchairs are discarded annually, and many of those chairs end up in local landfills.
"Kids outgrow chairs, people pass away or recover from injuries...since most pediatric chairs are written as a prescription, they can't be used again in this country for liability reasons" says Davis. "Those chairs end up in basements, closets, garages, or in the dump."
In 2001, Hope Haven West developed a collection site in Ceres for discarded chairs and a system of volunteer-driven wheelchair collections began. In 2012 Rotary District 5220 made wheelchair collections their signature project, and three semi-trucks full of wheelchairs and mobility equipment were collected.
In partnership with Hope Haven International and Joni and Friends, chairs received at the California collection center are shipped every few months to the vocational rehabilitation programs at seventeen federal prisons, most located in the Western United States. Inmates totally refurbish the used and broken chairs, which are then crated and shipped.
"Many of these guys are ‘lifers', states Davis. "I've visited with them in prison and seen how they keep photos of the recipients of the chairs they work on. They are so proud to be able to do something positive with their lives. It gives them purpose, and the gift they give to kids they will never meet is amazing."
Hope Haven West also purchases new, complex pediatric rehab chairs from various sources. These chairs allow the tilt-in-space and support structures needed for more complex disabilities.
Solicitudes, or applications, are received from in-country partner agencies. Each solicitude includes a photo and measurements of each chair-recipient. Chairs are individually selected, then crated and shipped by Hope Haven West to the host country. Distribution teams include seating specialists, physical therapists, physicians, Rotarians and other volunteers. All are volunteers, and all travel at their own expense.
In 1997 Hope Haven, with a grant from Rotary International established a wheelchair manufacturing plant in Guatemala, and today 20 disabled workers produce the Hope Haven chair, a pediatric complex rehab wheelchair. This plant has been successful on many levels. It dramatically cuts down on the shipping costs usually incurred when a container of wheelchairs is shipped from the US to Central America, and it gives the opportunity of gainful employment to disabled individuals who would otherwise have a difficult time securing meaningful work.
Hope Haven West has garnered a unique reputation among mobility organizations for its understanding that people and disabilities are not one-size-fits-all and neither are wheelchairs. The fit of the chair to the person and to the disability is critical to a successful outcome. A poor fit can cause pressure sores or make a disability worse. That is why medical, seating specialists and physical therapy experts from the top of their fields accompany the team on every distribution.
Service opportunities for volunteers are plentiful with Hope Haven West. The warehouse, located at 1324 Coldwell Avenue in Modesto is open for volunteers Mondays and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 12 noon or by appointment. Six seating clinics and distributions are scheduled for 2015 and opportunities are available for team members to experience firsthand what it means to give the gift of mobility. Volunteers to help with fundraiser committees are also welcome.
"There are not many times when you can stop at the end of the day and say, ‘I really made someone's life better today'. When you go on one of our trips, you say that every day. You can't beat it," says Lonny Davis.
Hope Haven West is a 501 (c) 3 tax-exempt organization that provides dignity through mobility to the disabled poor. To volunteer, or for more information please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 485-4553.